It’s that time of year when everyone is publishing “best-of” and “top ten” and so on. For once I’m not either grading or writing final papers [oh…hello Dissertation] but I am “taking stock” a bit. So what have I accomplished, written, read, listened to, and seen this past year? January started with the death of my beloved dad (Jan. 12) and my beloved uncle (Jan. 5) and that’s all I’ll say about that. Then there was the whole #NotMyPresident thing. I got angry. I marched. again. I swore at the TV. again. But still, Trump remains. In February I adopted a large black cat variously known as Mr. Remy, Mr. Kitty, and El Poco Diablo. As for accomplishments: I finished my PhD comp exams [one in FA16 and two in SP17]. I continued as Senior Fiction Editor at Black Lawrence Press where I read a couple hundred manuscripts and curated, edited & produced BLP’s weekly newsletter Sapling (52 issues). I read a lot of books & wrote several reviews for The Brooklyn Rail. I wrote a draft dissertation proposal, applied, and was accepted into the first cohort of the Early Career Workshop at the Center for Women’s History at the New York Historical Society. I applied for and was granted a fellowship to attend ArtSmith – a one week artist’s retreat on Orcas Island. I wrote another novel draft (60K words) for 2017 NanoWriMo. I published another chapbook w/Mary Ellen Sanger (maybe our last). I went back to the gym, did my PT, and went from barely being able to walk across the street in August to doing 7 “moderately strenuous” hikes this past fall. I met my GoodReads 2017 Reading Challenge goal of reading one hundred books (not counting manuscripts). I went to a few live shows/concerts. I also watched way too much Netflix & Amazon Prime & went to a ton of movies. Top 10-20 out of all that: sound: Nick Cave at the Beacon. NY Philharmonic Beethoven’s 9th. visual: City of Ghosts (dir. Matthew Heineman), Kedi (dir. Ceyda Torun), Byzantium (dir. Neil Jordan – Netflix), The Kettering Incident (Netflix), and of course Twin Peaks: the Return & Stranger Things. text: The Power/Naomi Alderman, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me/Sherman Alexie, Hunger/Roxanne Gay, Wait Till You See Me Dance/Deb Olin Unferth, Blaris Moore/Medbh McGuckian, Ph: a novel/Nancy Lord, An Unkindness of Magicians/Kat Howard, The Folly of Loving Life/Monica Drake & a re-read of Simone de Beauvoir. And so goes another year. Here’s hoping 2018 brings us a better President and a better world.
Halloween is by far my favorite holiday although there’s a certain amount of melancholy that comes with it. Although I live in a city that embraces Halloween, many of the people in my life seem to see it as “just for kids.” It’s not. Nor should it be. While I don’t celebrate as much as I used to [the parade is too crowded, Pernod & black & late nights during the week have lost their appeal]. I still love the costumes, the music, the films… This past weekend I went with friends to see a performance by Radio Theatre NYC of two HP Lovecraft tales. It was fun: there were wigs, silly hats, scary masks, lots of theatrical fog. Tonight we’ll go to the Merchant’s House Museum to hear more scary tales. And then Halloween will be over for another year. And that brings with it a certain sadness, a wistfulness – perhaps brought on from reading too much Poe or Carter or watching one too many vampire movies.
The end of Halloween is also a time for beginnings – November 1st means the start of NaNoWriMo and I’ll try again this year to write the bones of a novel. I’m not overly optimistic this time around. I work 40 hrs a week at a non-writing job, have a dissertation to work on, several book reviews due by mid-November, not to mention stacks of manuscripts to read for BLP. A fellow writer friend once said that our lives are mainly composed of all the many things we do to keep ourselves from writing. There is a truth to what she says: how many hours have I spent busily not writing? Or is it instead what another friend says, that everything we do – the way we live in the world, how we understand the world around us, everything we see, feel, taste, touch, hear, etc. – all of this makes up the act that is writing. Certainly now when I sit down to write, I feel that I have more “tools” to work with [and I’m not just talking about my sharp editorial skills] but does that make up for all the hours lost to everything else when I really could be, should be writing?
Another friend asked me to send her a list of my “favorite horror movies.” But there are also other lists that go with that: music, books, cocktails, shoes. As a (semi)retired Goth, getting spooky is serious business to me. Here are just a few films & books to wrap this up in a seasonal way:
Films: Dracula (1931) The Innocents (1961) Nosferatu (1922) Don’t Look Now (1973) Hellraiser (1987) Bride of Frankenstein (1935) The Shining (1980) The Others (2001) The Exorcist (1973) Horror of Dracula (1958) Nosferatu (1979) A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) Let the Right One In (2008) Carnival of Souls (1962) Shadow of the Vampire (2000) Daughters of Darkness (1971)
Books: The Bloody Chamber & other stories/Carter, Frankenstein/Wollstonecraft Shelley, Dracula/Stoker, Northanger Abbey/Austen, Carmilla/Le Fanu, Complete Poe, The Haunting of Hill House/Jackson, We Have always Live in the Castle/Jackson, The Call of Cthulhu/Lovecraft, In a glass Darkly/Le Fanu, Interview w/a Vampire/Rice, Lost Souls/Brite, Coldheart Canyon/Barker
This year’s AWP conference was in WDC and what with the current political climate & the crowds of deep-thinking humans attending, I had high hopes for “activist moments.” Perhaps there were some in the keynote(s) that I was too exhausted to attend or during something of the panels – too numerous to choose from. The single event advertised as specifically activist was on Saturday. After a tour of the very poorly designed DC Metro system trying to get from the Convention Center to the White House, I witnessed the end of a short “vigil.” A vigil where poets spoke and no one could hear. A vigil where there was insufficient light and no one could see. A vigil where the messages were so muddy as to fizzle out as soon as they were voiced. After taking part in countless post-election protests in NYC, I felt let down. This isn’t a time for holding candles politely and speaking softly. We’ve done too much of that.
AWP is always a bit of a mess – too many panels, too many people crammed into the book fair, not enough drinking water or edible food, terrible coffee (except the year AWP was in Seattle). But AWP is also a yearly affirmation that words matter; that people still read and write books; that there is more to American life than Reality TV, the LCD, fake news, and sound bites. At AWP17, I had countless enthusiastic conversations with writers, poets, editors, and even a few who self-identified simply as “readers.” There were also a number of MFA students who weren’t quite sure they could identify as “writers.” Note: If you commit to an MFA program – you’re a writer.
Working for a small press is a bit like working for an indie label (something I did a lot of in decades past). It doesn’t pay, it’s a lot of work, and you have to care about what you do. Many people who stopped by the BLP booth at the book fair asked, “What kind of fiction do you like/publish/read?” and “What do you look for in a book?” The best answer I can give to any of these questions is, “something good.” By which I mean a manuscript that shows not only a knowledge of plot and character but language, how to craft a sentence, how to edit. So many manuscripts I read have unnecessary prefaces, prologues, endless paragraphs telling me what the book is about. I want to read the book, not words telling me about the book. Certainly there are publishers, editors, agents who require query letters, a synopsis, etc. but not BLP. That first sentence is crucial. The first chapter in a novel, the first story in a collection has to be strong. Often when I read a manuscript that saves the best for the middle, I’m reminded of listening to band demos where the “best” song is third or fourth. This makes the assumption that the listener/reader/editor is going to listen or read more than the first song, the first few pages. We’re not, we don’t, we can’t.
I’m a writer myself and I know how frustrating the publishing world can be. In the past couple of years, my own non-academic writing has suffered from a surfeit of neglect. Sure I do poem-a-day & NaNoWriMo but I rarely send anything out into the world that’s not a book review, an academic essay, or a blog post. After each AWP, I feel inspired (at least a little) to send stories, poems, manuscripts out to any of the hundreds of journals and/or small presses that publish work I like. But it’s rare that I follow up on that feeling.
When my father died earlier this year I thought a lot about what I would say at his memorial. I ended up writing something the day prior and tossing everything else I’d drafted. When I thought about our relationship over the years and what it means to me to lose him, a lot of that loss is the silencing of his stories. He was a wonderful story teller. He told stories about his life, his ancestors, his childhood home, and the many and vastly varied places he saw in his long life and travels. There is some part of me now that wonders just what it matters whether or not my own stories ever get out into the world now that he’s gone. But there’s also a part of me that knows that when I say women’s voices matter, I also mean my voice, my stories and so I know I have to face down the ugly dual monsters of discouragement and fear of rejection and send my stories out into the world. Because I’m a writer and because my dad would want me to.
While I’m still slogging away at NaNoWriMo (and about now it DOES feel like a “slog”)…I’m also trying to get through the last of this semester’s course work and final papers, etc. As a Ph.D. student with more than one Master’s Degree behind me (I have 4 if you’re counting), I’ve learned to separate “emotional” responses from “critical” responses. Despite this ability, since 2012 when I was first diagnosed with PTSD, one of the struggles I’ve had is responding “appropriately” to images, sounds, and texts. In other words, when I see violence, I “over” react. But what does this actually mean? This week’s reading for a course I’m taking on the history of documentary photography – Susie Linfield’s “Cruel Radiance” – focuses on images of “political violence” and responses – critical and personal – to these images. It’s rare that my academic reading aligns with specific “real life” events but reading critical discussion of how “we” should respond to images of human suffering while the events in Paris unfolded was both apt and also, incredibly difficult. To be clear – my suffering is not as “personal” as that experienced by those who lost loved ones or were direct witnesses to the Paris attacks (or those in Lebanon) – I’m not claiming that. One of the worst symptoms of PTSD is the way it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to view violence and achieve that distance necessary to “process” it. But is this really what we should be doing? I don’t want to feel the debilitating pain that I feel when I view new footage, photographs or read about human suffering (torture, war, famine, etc.) but I also agree with Linfield that we have an ethical obligation NOT to turn away. But how do I get past the feeling of shock and helplessness such viewing causes? How do I process these images (or in the case of my class assignment – write an “appropriate” response paper to an academic text) without internalizing the fear and despair I feel at witnessing the suffering of others. Linfield suggests that it is through the viewing of images of suffering that we become inspired to be active in human rights efforts. But for those of us who suffer from PTSD and who don’t have the “proper” filters for viewing such images, is it ethically wrong to turn away? How can we learn to empathize without descending into the deadly cycle of flashback-anxiety-hopelessness that PTSD can cause? No answers here, just questions.
It’s Day 11 of NaNoWriMo and although I’m in the midst of one of the busiest times at my day job and in my semester, I’ve still managed to crank out over 13,000 words so far. What my main character is up to I’m still not sure but I’ll let her do what she wants and hope it all turns out. Currently there are two main story lines going: some formative event(s) from the main character’s past and what is apparently either a story about a woman going slowly mad or more likely, some kind of haunting (?). Also, yellow roses appear to be a big problem for her. This is the first time in a while that I’ve written with a female protagonist throughout. It feels odd but as she’s different from me, it’s interesting to find out how she feels/thinks/acts. As to the writing process itself, it’s very difficult (impossible?) for me to find periods of concentrated writing so, instead, I’ve been writing whenever and wherever I can. I just wrote 300 words on my lunch break at work – not much but it introduced an important plot point. Last night, I was stuck on a NJ Transit train that was 30 minutes late pulling in to Penn Station and that gave me well over an hour of writing time. I’ve never been precious about where I write although, of course, I prefer my desk at home. I write on a small pad of paper when I don’t have my laptop with me and on my laptop when I have it. I have a couple of long flights coming up and those are always good for getting writing done. I don’t understand writers who need a specific “atmosphere” to write – I’m just too busy to be so precious about my writing space. As long as I have my iPod and a few spare minutes, I’ll be writing. However, there is one aspect of my life that suffers during NaNoWriMo and that’s my daily poems. I wrote a short poem today but otherwise, I’m not able to stick to my daily schedule. I’m hoping to be at 25,000 this weekend in anticipation of some major academic work that needs to get done over the next four weeks. Meanwhile, what IS it about yellow roses?
So every year I participate in NaNoWrimo (National Novel Writing Month) and every year I finish the 50,000 words required. Most years, I wait until Thanksgiving Week and then I pound through the word count, breathlessly finishing by 11.59 on 11.30. In the past, I’ve usually just sat done and written whatever story was in my head at the time and it all seemed to connect eventually. Often, it’s a character’s voice demanding to be heard. Sometimes, it’s a place or a moment or a line of dialogue but I’ve never written with a plan or a central conflict or a list of pre-created characters.
This year, I decided to be a sane human about things. In the few days prior to Nov. 1st, I wrote an outline. I thought about characters. I thought about place and conflict and all the other things that go into writing. And yesterday, once I’d finished my reading for class tomorrow night, and making a pot of soup, and feeding the cat, and cleaning the apartment and putting the clean laundry away and checking my email…I turned off my phone, sat down and started to write. At some point, I realized it was time to stand up and stretch and go to bed. It wasn’t that much writing – only about 2,000 words – but it was a start. And it was NOTHING like my outline, nothing like the rough plot or characters I’d thought about. Currently, I’ve left one character downstairs fetching luggage while another character sits in a bedroom in an old house she hasn’t seen since childhood. Outside a storm is raging and, of course, the power’s just gone out. No idea what happens next. I guess I’ll have to wait until tonight to find out. And for me, that’s half the joy of writing – letting the story tell itself without being forced to follow an outline, without putting limitations on characters, and without knowing what’s going to happen next.
In the midst of mid-terms in my PhD program, I’ve decided what with all that spare time I have, to sign up for another year’s National Novel Writing Month. I’ve done this process four times with varying results. 3 out of four, I’ve completed a “novel” or at least the required word count. One of those novels went around to agents a bit and now sits sadly on my hard drive waiting to be revisited. A friend asked if I thought “that whole writing a novel in a month” was a waste of time. I’d argue that no writing is a waste of time (aside from some “academic” writing or that FB posting I do when I should be doing other things). That said, whether or not I’ll “do” anything with the novel I plan to write this November isn’t really the point. It’s the writing itself that’s important. One year, I wrote the first half on a very long flight, wrote a few pages over Thanksgiving and finished it up on the flight back to NYC. This year I’ll try to find time by getting up earlier, going to bed later, and cutting back on my already limited social life. Final papers for the fall grad school semester will be looming and likely, too many manuscripts to read for Black Lawrence Press but all the same, I will get a first draft of a new novel done. And maybe I’ll even post part of it here if & when I remember that I have a blog.